Black Madonna

The photo here was made in the Cathedral at Regla known as Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla in Havana. This small cathedral across the Bahia Habana from Havana Vieja is a fascinating place, here there are statues of many of the Roman Catholic saints who were worshipped by the African slaves in previous times. There are always some people there sitting and meditating. In a small chapel off of the main sanctuary there is the Black Madonna. This is La Santisima Virgen de Regla, venerated in the Catholic faith and associated in the Santeria religion with Yemayá, the orisha of the sea and the patron of Sailors. Legend has it that the image was carved by St. Augustine “the African” in the 5th century. Those attempting a raft crossing to the US these days try to get to the Cathedral to evoke the protection of the Black Virgin.

This past week Good Friday was declared an official holiday in Cuba. This is the second year that this has happened. It signifies a closer relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the State than has existed in the past, since before the Revolution. Pope John Paul II made an historic visit to the island nation in 1998 and Benedict XVI visited fourteen years later, coming to a changed country where the Roman Catholic Church occupies a role of increasing influence and popularity. This growth in the role of they church has come about due to the tireless and careful diplomacy of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the political ascension of Raul Castro, and the declining fortunes of the revolution.

There are also Protestant churches, especially in the cities of Havana and Santiago. In 2000 I attended Sunday services at the National Episcopal Church of Cuba with the recently retired Bishop of Cuba. It was an extraordinary experience, not only did they have a church, there was a large collection of classrooms and they had a vibrant youth program. There were also several posters expressing support of Elian Gomez at that time.

In spite of the growth of the church most Cubans still hedge their bets and are believers in both Catholicism as well as Santeria. The religious practice is thus a syncretic belief that contains much of both Roman Catholicism and the older African Yoruba pantheistic religion.

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